LANE ONE: USA Track & Field membership rejects USOPC-requested governance changes at Annual Meeting

(For Highlights of the weekend’s major competitions, click here.)

After winning a world-leading 26 medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games, you would think that the weekend’s USA Track & Field Annual Meeting would have been all about celebration.

Held in a part-in-person, part-online format from Lake Buena Vista, Florida, stars of the Games were honored, as shot put winner Ryan Crouser won the Jesse Owens Award and hurdles gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin received the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Award as the top U.S. athletes of 2021.

In addition, Bobby Kersee – who coaches McLaughlin – received the Coach of the Year for the third time and “Wing Awards” went to women’s 800 m gold medalist Athing Mu for “Best Olympic Track Performance,” and Crouser won for the top Olympic field effort. Women’s marathon bronze medalist Molly Seidel won for “Breakthrough Performer of the Year.”

So much for awards; the real action was in – of all places – the Law & Legislation Committee.

Why? Because the USATF members had been disenfranchised from the management of their own federation one year prior at the behest of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

In November 2020, the USOPC told USA Track & Field:

“The USOPC mandates that good (or effective) governance means that the USATF Board 1) must be the final authority to adopt bylaws and regulations; 2) shall elect the Chair and the elected Chair should have appropriate appointment authority; 3) include more independent members and have additional athlete representation; and 4) ensure volunteers don’t make decisions, which could impact the budgetary or operational aspects of the organization.”

These bylaw changes were not passed by the membership, but the USATF Board adopted temporary changes on its own that acceded to these demands. But those temporary amendments were up for approval again, and a November 2021 letter from USOPC Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer Holly Shick reiterated their position and closed with “we will closely follow the results of the December meeting for purposes of our 2022 audit.”

During the Law & Legislation Committee discussions, USOPC Chief of Sport Performance and NGB Services Rick Adams and Senior Governance Advisor David Patterson both urged permanent passage of the USOPC-requested bylaws. Activist Becca Peter of tweeted:

“Rick Adams continues to create the impression that any deficiency in our audit will result in us not being recognized by the USOPC.

“He is discussing what happens if USATF is not recognized.”

The threat of de-certifying a national federation as the governing body of a sport is a power which the USOPC holds, subject to binding arbitration on appeal (36 U.S.C. §§220521-220530). It’s a potent weapon of last resort, but did not impress the Law & Legislation Committee.

A series of compromise legislative proposals to modify the temporary amendments favorable to the USOPC was dismissed, leaving Sunday’s membership vote an all-or-nothing outcome for the USATF Board (and the USOPC).

They got nothing.

● Temporary Amendment 1, which enabled the Board to choose its own Chair, instead of having the elected President of the USATF serve as Board Chair was defeated: 33.65% yes, 65.77% no, 0.58% abstentions.

● Temporary Amendment 2, which gave the USATF Board the power to change the federation’s bylaws permanently, was defeated: 27.77% yes, 71.66%, no, 0.58% abstentions.

● Temporary Amendment 5, which changed the membership appointment structure of the Law & Legislation Committee, was defeated: 34.24% yes, 64.18% no, 1.57% abstentions.

Especially noteworthy were the differences between these voting outcomes and the voting totals from the Annual Meeting in 2020, when the membership was not as engaged on these issues. Temporary Amendment 1 was passed 57-42%, but short of the two-thirds majority required. Temporary Amendment 2 passed by 53-46% – also short of passage – and Temporary Amendment 3 had 62% in favor and 37.6% against, just short of the super-majority required.

In 2021, with the membership much more aware, all three proposals sank like lead.

As is usual at the Annual Meeting, the USATF Board of Directors met after the close of Sunday’s final session and a new cry to pass new temporary amendments was immediately raised. But strong voices were also heard against the idea, and no announcements of any changes were made.

There will, no doubt, be more consideration later.

Attendees at the Annual Meeting noted that in the last round of lobbying of the membership on these votes, the USATF Board couched its appeal not so much on the fear of USOPC de-certification – widely seen as highly unlikely considering USATF’s strong record in so many areas – but in the idea that the membership elects many (but not all) of the Board members, so the Board can be trusted.

But last year’s passage of the three temporary rules, especially allowing the demotion of elected President Vin Lananna to Vice Chair of the Board, has soured any trust in the existing USATF Board. How that impacts this Board going forward is anyone’s guess.

The USOPC is left with a clear defeat from a major National Governing Body, whose members will not be deterred from the governance of their sport. From its first days as an independent body then known as The Athletics Congress in 1979, the sport of track & field has had an involved, restless and sometimes insurgent membership and that has not changed.

The future is cloudy. Will USATF’s Board once again pass temporary amendments to placate the USOPC and once again ignore the membership? Will the USOPC insist? Will other National Governing Bodies who have been strong-armed by the USOPC also revolt? USA Fencing is going through many of the same issues and there are those who want to reverse that Board’s power play on the bylaws and demotion of its elected President.

What happened to athletes, coaches, training and competitions?

Thanks to the Larry Nassar abuse scandal, the USOPC’s responsibility for oversight of the National Governing Bodies has been emphatically underlined by the U.S. Congress, which itself took on the power to de-certify NGBs, in violation of the Olympic Charter. It is ironic that because of laws democratically passed in Washington, D.C., the USOPC has decided that it must eliminate the member governance of its NGBs.

The membership of USA Track & Field – in the sport which has won more Olympic medals for the U.S. than any other – isn’t buying it.

Rich Perelman

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